Google’s Helpful Content Update (HCU)

Hot off the press: Google has just announced a new algorithm update, rolling out next week aptly named: Helpful Content Update or HCU for short.

This update is designed to ensure more original and helpful content (designed for users) gets more exposure than content designed solely for search engines.

Possibly a reaction to the recent popularity of AI content, it looks as though Google has decided to make an algorithmic change that targets content designed to simply rank and not add value.

Give the announcement a read here.


Looking for a breakdown of Google’s December 2022 SpamBrain update? Check out our post here.

Breaking the HCU Google Update announcement down

We’re going to go a little deeper into some of the questions in the announcement article:

Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?

This question is not the clearest, but we decipher it as meaning: Does your site have an overarching purpose? If someone went directly to your site, would they find the content useful to them? This solidifies that you should keep your blog content focused on your audience and not just designed to capture search queries.

Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?

This one we can break down as having original images and research. If you’re talking about certain products or places, ensure you take high-quality original images.

Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?

Again, going back to the first point, your site’s content should have a primary purpose. We consider this an attack on sites that try to generalize and catch as many search queries on any topic as possible.

Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?

So here, we think they are targeting thin content simply designed to capture traffic from a certain search query. Is it thin content without any images or rich formatting? I think these could be giveaway signs of a piece of content designed simply for search engines.

Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

We think this is targeting AI or mass page creators. Think creating lots of thin pages for areas you serve or scraping ‘People Also Ask’ in Google to create multiple pages or posts.

Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

This question again targets thin content that doesn’t serve the user, so they have to click back and find another result. This could potentially be tracked with Analytics and bounce rate.

Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).

This question targets users who are writing to specific word counts simply because a tool (like Surfer SEO) tells them to. 

Whilst we agree that we shouldn’t be blindly writing to word counts based on tools, we do need to understand that writing for certain search queries requires a certain amount of words to cover the topic. The best way to find out this word count in most cases is to check the word count of competing articles for the particular search query.

Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?

This one takes another dive into EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) and suggests the author of the content should be qualified to talk about the topic. 

Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.

In this section of the announcement, Google explains that sites with a relatively high amount of thin content will be demoted and shown less in search. Even if the site has helpful content, this will also be given the same treatment. This update will be a site-wide adjustment for affected sites. 

It also suggests removing unhelpful content.

Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.

The algorithm will be live, meaning it is always running. It suggests here that after removing unhelpful content for a period of time, the ‘penalty’ or demotion will be lifted, and rankings will return, given your content meets all the criteria of being ‘helpful’.

So What Should You Do?

Now would be a good time to perform a content audit on your or your client’s sites. I would measure all the content against a set of quality metrics and prune content you deem to fall short.

Look at the following content on your or your client’s site:

  • Content very low visits (less than 20) in the past 3 months: This content is potentially redundant, not needed, or doesn’t fall into your site’s purpose. Consider removing these pages (unless they actually serve a purpose) and 301 them into a relevant page that is more useful. Whilst not an exact target of the update, it could potentially remove any pages that are very thin and have no ‘helpful’ purpose. 
  • Content with very high bounce rates (95%+): Bounce rate in Analytics is quite controversial as it considers anyone not to have visited another page as a ‘bounce’, so err with caution when checking these pages and deciding whether to update or prune them. These pages may need an update, some better content, videos, images or rich formatting.
  • Content that is thin, with no media or rich formatting: Check through your content and see if there are any pages that look as if they didn’t have a user in mind at all. These pages usually have no media or rich formatting for user experience. Consider updating all of these pages to make them more helpful for users.
  • Content that has no original research or images: Look for opportunities in your content to add original research and images. Google are explicitly looking for ‘first hand experience’. For this we would highly recommend re-thinking thin content without original images.
  • Content that doesn’t fall into the purpose of your site: Take a look at your pages and make note of any pages that do not fit in with the overall purpose or category of your site. Were these pages simply created to attract search queries outside the scope of your business? Consider pruning these pages or taking the content and placing it on another more focused site for that category.
  • Content that was written by AI: We’re not saying AI is bad, but the output of AI can create bad content if not augmented with useful and helpful editing. Check your AI-assisted content and review how helpful or original it is. Does it need an extra opinion, or an original piece of research? Consider pruning pages that aren’t helpful.
  • Content that was mass generated: Do you have content on your site such as doorway pages for areas or keywords that were mass generated? Consider making these pages more useful by adding real content and value. If these pages don’t get much traffic you could consider pruning these.

Get the help of an industry expert.

For your site or your client’s site, you may have easy access to someone with credentials, experience or expertise in the industry. Make use of this and get quotes or opinions to include in articles. You could also have them review pages or posts and include a “reviewed by” byline which could help solidify niche expertise. 

If you don’t have access to an expert, finding one via Facebook groups, Upwork or a Journalist Links service could be an option.

Create Quality Content that Users Love!

When creating content, think about your users first and foremost. Everything else is secondary. SEO should augment your existing content, not dictate it. With FATJOE’s content service we write for users first based on your brief.

Don’t panic

Given the above, there is no need to make any really drastic changes to your website or worry about changing everything. If there are some obvious things to improve, you should do this, but besides that, this will be one of many, many ranking factors and if you’re doing everything else right, you shouldn’t get affected too much.

We see this update affecting AI content and really thin longtail question queries that were simply designed to capture traffic at scale, but the clues in here can help us improve our content even if they don’t fall into the AI category.

This will roll out in a couple of weeks, we will update this post as we know more!

Further reading:

Daniel Trick

Head of Content

View All Posts

Become a Pro at SEO

Join 65,000 others and learn the secrets to SEO success with our weekly blog posts.